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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules is strong stuff but not exactly his serious side

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin Sorbo doesn’t have any illusion that his version of “Hercules” is anything more than action-escapist fare.

“Let’s face it,” Sorbo says, running both hands through his long locks during lunch at a Downtown Los Angeles restaurant. “There is something about it that’s a little ‘Phone-In the Barbarian ...”

Three new “Hercules” films starring Sorbo as the son of Zeus begin muscling their way onto Southern California independent stations this week. The movies are part of the Universal Television-produced “Action Pack Series.”

Sorbo says the films are, not surprisingly, “pure escapist fun. ... Fire up the popcorn, sit back and enjoy.”

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Audiences enjoyed the two previously aired “Hercules” movies enough to earn it a syndicated series slot, starting in January.

Sorbo, on a break from shooting in New Zealand, is eager to discuss exactly why he agreed to a role played previously by Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno and, most formidably, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In these films, he says, “I’m not a super-hero. I can’t take a bullet and I don’t fly. But Hercules is deeply rooted in mythology, and definitely a story worth telling. The script made me laugh, and this Hercules has many other sides. He loves kids. He has humanity.”

And Sorbo is one actor who doesn’t mind being identified with a character. He appears in commercials and is now in the second year of a contract with the makers of the bourbon whiskey Jim Beam. He’s played “the Jim Beam guy” in countless commercials--which are played everywhere in the world, except in the United States.

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His catch-phrase, “It ain’t Jim Beam,” is often quoted back at him when he travels. “Like I’ve never heard it before,” he says laughing.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Minnesota native played sports throughout school and attended the University of Minnesota, where he majored in marketing. But, he says, “I always wanted to be an actor. I saw ‘Oklahoma!’ when I was 7 and that was it. But it’s not the kind of thing you want to say you want to do growing up. It sounds . . . sort of sissy-ish.”

By the time he reached his late teens, Sorbo stopped worrying about name-calling: “By the time I got to college, I started taking drama classes.”

Following a girlfriend to Europe, Sorbo spent three years working as a model and commercial actor. He spent another year in Australia doing more commercials.

When he returned to the United States in 1986, even though he had name recognition internationally, he worked as both bouncer and bartender. “Then I got into commercials here,” he says. “Luckily, I can have many different looks. I think you’d be surprised at the commercials I was in.” To list a few: Budweiser, BMW, Diet Coke and Lexus. Sorbo followed these with roles in two pilots, NBC’s “Critical Condition” and Fox’s “Aspen.”

He’s not worried about being typecast as the next action hero. He does , however, object to being compared to Fabio, with whom he shares a great physique and long hair. “I got a lot of flack when I was in acting classes here for doing commercials. But you know what? Those actors who gave me a hard time are the ones coming up to us now taking our orders. Commercials helped me get this part and this series, so I’m very grateful for that work.”

And, he adds, “Like most actors, all I really want to do is keep working. Writing, directing, producing. I’m hoping all of those are in my future.”

“Hercules and the Circle of Fire” airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on KTLA and Saturday at noon on WGN. “Hercules in the Underworld” Monday at 7 p.m. on KTTY; Thursday at 8 p.m. on KADY and Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. on KTLA. “Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur” airs Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. on KTTY, Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. on KADY and Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. on KTLA.

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